The object of feminist reading groups

I have organised three feminist reading group meetings at the women’s organisation and advocacy centre, AWAM, in Petaling Jaya (see here, here, and here for details) between December 2015 to March 2016. Considering the limited means of publicity at my disposal, the three meetings were nonetheless a success at getting people to engage rather deeply, and in sometimes fraught ways, with feminist issues and arguments.

The discussions could not have been entirely inclusive because of language; most of the participants felt more comfortable speaking in English or could only understand English. Attempts to switch bilingually is very difficult for me. A few had better knowledge and debates within contemporary feminist discourse than others which made managing a group with varying backgrounds of knowledge sometimes a challenge.

‘Still Life’ (1926) by Georges Braque  |    Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since there seems to be a revival of an interest in feminism in Malaysia, it was a good idea to (re)visit the feminist literature and talk about it with others. There were, however, other reasons to have a feminist reading group:

 

1. To honour the work of feminists from previous generations who have paved the way for our understanding, whose legacy we have directly and indirectly inherited and upon which we build our strength

What I’ve learned:

Many young women are calling themselves ‘intersectional feminists’ these days. While I feel this phenomenon has its upside in that intersectionality as a theoretical concept has crossed the boundary of academia into mainstream discourse, I also feel that this boundary-crossing has resulted in some loss of meaning. Those who call themselves ‘intersectional feminists’ often struggle to define what they are really all about and have not read Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) or Patricia Hill Collins’s work (see Hill Collins 2015).

Edward Said (1983) has talked about what happens when theory travels; it becomes diluted of its political power as it drifts further away from its origins. However in his revisit on the subject (1991), he argues that when theories travel and become rooted in a new place, usage can result in a re-invigoration of ideas in unexpected and powerful ways.

In every meeting of the feminist reading group, I remind my participants that we’re not here to reinvent the wheel. Most of what we’re arguing for and are angry about are likely to have been argued and fought over by generations of women and men before us. We need to take the longer view and see how much and little feminist struggles have succeeded and locate our position within local and transnational narratives.

2. To nurture a small collective of readers

I have been deeply influenced by my critical theory classes on reader response theory (thank you, Sian Hawthorne). Since learning about reader response theory and the work of Stanley Fish, I have tended to privilege the elusive and transitory quality of meaning of a text. When a text has the potential to invoke powerful emotions and personal resonances, I feel its meaning is more likely to be found within the reader and her engagement with the text.

Thus, as Fish would argue, meaning is less an entity than an event. For he is saying that the meaning of a text occurs during its encounter with the reader. Without a reader, the text is dead. Being an event, it is subject to the vicissitudes that define the contours of a particular occasion; such as when it is being read, by, for and with whom.

What I’ve learned:

A thing I have learned from organising the feminist reading group is that it is temporally and spatially-constructed for collective focus and developing a skill to bounce between the written page and life. This has resulted in agonising moments of dispute over the selection of readings and how they appear to be irrelevant to our lived experiences. Future texts for discussion may need to be selected by participants or voted over.

3. To collectively talk and share our understanding of feminism and how it may related to our own lives and that of others. Ultimately it is about developing a feminist consciousness, whether as a novice or someone who has thought and practised feminist ethics for a longer time (see Ahmed’s blog on feminist consciousness).

Feminist reading groups are one of the signature traditions of consciousness raising (CR) efforts by second wave feminists. Flawed and perhaps a little passé, the Marxist-inspired concept of consciousness adopted by radical and socialist feminists became the bedrock for women’s public expression, for stepping out of the shadows of the ‘private’ sphere and into the public.

What does it mean to develop a ‘feminist consciousness’? Bartky (1975) argues that it is about a way of apprehending the world. To have feminist consciousness is just the beginning of one’s feminist life story. It is a “transforming experience” which often results in change of behaviour, making a new set of friends, having a new way of responding to people and events, change of consumption habits, and a whole lifestyle transformation (Bartky 1975:425).

***

When organising events of an intellectual nature in Malaysia, it may be easy to fall into the trap of self-satisfaction and pretentiousness or “syok sendiri”. Perhaps this is because of a history of failed education policies and its legacy of division and repression. Thus anything intellectual comes across as an achievement and an end in itself. The human cost of such a legacy is huge as generations of Malaysians struggle to appreciate ideas, arts and culture for their sake alone, as education is seen as a process simply of attainment/ownership and using what is attained/owed. This brief comment on education is a side story of why a feminist reading group is necessary; the latter is about reading for reading’s sake, community, consciousness and being – processes and relations that require further appreciation and continuing engagement in as many spaces as possible, both offline and on.

Reference:

Sandra Lee Bartky. 1975. Toward a phenomenology of feminist consciousness. Social Theory and Practice, 3(4), pp. 425-439

Patricia Hill Collins. 2015. Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, pp.1-20

Kimberle Crenshaw. 1991. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford law review, pp.1241-1299.

Stanley Fish. 1980. Is there a text in this class? the authority of interpretive communities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Edward Said. 1983. Traveling theory, in The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Edward Said. 2001. Travelling theory revisited. Reflections on Exile, pp.436-452.

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